Category Archives: Bears

Living In the Big Bend Region

For many people, living in the Big Bend Region is a dream. They love the area, but the job market doesn’t allow them to live there full time. People take rides out to the desert on the motorcycles or take RVs to live in for a few days of isolation before heading back to the grind of the city. For others, they couldn’t imagine wanting to live in a desert, where so many things either stink, sting, or stick (e.g. skunks, rattlenakes/bees/wasps/other bitey things, and sticker burrs/goat heads/cactus, etc.)  Other people don’t even know that Texas has mountains, and have never even heard of The Big Bend. But, for 6 short years, Hubby and I were able to live in The Big Bend Region while going to college at Sul Ross State University. While we were there we experienced a lot of different things: small town life (i.e. gossip and knowing everyone in town), getting annoyed with tourists for not knowing how to drive their giant rented RVs through town, having javelinas (pronounced ha-va-lee-na) eat rotten bird seed off the ground in my front yard and having the dog go berserk at 3 am because of it, having an epic battle in the backyard with the dog and a skunk at 5 am, ending up with a very disgusting (but proud of himself) dog and a zombie skunk that wouldn’t die. It was a pretty eventful 6 years.

However, our best experiences were outdoors.

During my undergrad career, I had plans to go to vet school so I majored in Animal Science, but developed the realization that veterinary work was NOT what I wanted to do. I was still interested in it, but no longer felt that medicine was my calling. Hubby majored in Biology and through him I was able to meet the Biology Professors and students, and we both decided to get our Master’s Degrees in Biology.

During this time, Hubby worked on his thesis research and I later worked on mine. It was good timing because we could both help each other out while we weren’t working on our own projects. We both researched different aspects of Black bear in Big Bend National Park (yes, there are bears in Texas *eye roll*).  That means that we had a lot of amazing experiences with Black bear and other wildlife while we were looking for the bears. Here is a map of Big Bend that you can use as reference.

My gallery this week consists of photos taken while working on my research, Hubby’s research, and various other trips we took in the Big Bend Region. Each photo has a description of what we were doing at that time. Enjoy. I know I did.

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Wolves in Yellowstone: An Ecology Lesson

I have always been a biologist at heart. When I was a little girl I would constantly be looking at bugs and plants, and learning as much as I could about the world around me. I understood at a very young age how the natural world works together – everything having a niche in which it belonged. You throw one thing out of whack, and the balance is thrown off around it. I’m not sure why other people don’t understand this, because it seems like perfect, common sense that even a child could figure out, so why do people continue to do things like hunt the whales to extinction or organize rattlesnake roundups?

One example is the wolves in the United States. Once upon a time, not very long ago, people began to populate the wild areas of the northwestern United States.  Ranching was the reason for the move – Wide Open Spaces and untouched grazing. It was a paradise for ranchers. Except for the wolves. Every once in a while a wolf would find a nice fat calf as an easy meal. Result? The ranchers started killing wolves to protect their livestock. Then the government got involved. The government hired trappers in an attempt to annihilate the wolves. Literally. That was their goal – kill off all the wolves. What good did wolves do, anyway? We didn’t NEED wolves here. All they did was kill innocent livestock and wildlife that WE wanted to kill and eat. So the government answer was to kill off the competition.  Bears were also deemed a nuisance as well, and were also on the trapper hit list, but mainly because they eat the fish and crops that people were eating too. Wolves were extirpated from most of the United States is a matter of a few decades.

The plan to eradicate the wolves backfired however, and the best place to see the results of that backfire was in Yellowstone National Park. The land is still (pretty much) untouched and natural, and is a great place for grad students to do research 🙂

See, over the years that there were no wolves in the park, a lot of things changed. The elk population skyrocketed. So much so that in the winter the elk were having to be fed hay by the park rangers so that there weren’t massive die-offs from starvation. The massive elk population was killing the aspen trees by grazing them down to nothing, preventing new forest from replacing the old trees and fire-killed trees. Elk were also killing other species of trees by rubbing their antlers on them so much that it was ripping the bark from the trees and allowing insects the chance to infest the trees. Elk were grazing everything down to nothing because of their massive numbers.

In 1995 when 14 wolves were trapped in Alberta, Canada and brought to Yellowstone National Park, it was deemed an “experimental population” and they were radio-collared and watched closely to see what would happen.

Here is a quick video that can describe it much better than I can, and the sound of the wolves howling always gives me chills, so I love this video.

While Hubby and I were on vacation in Yellowstone, we saw, personally, the changes that the wolves had made.

Yellowstone May 2014 1246

These pines have clear damage by elk from scraping the velvet off of their antlers every spring. Notice the dead tree in the foreground which also has the same scars from the elk. This tree was likely killed by insects boring into the soft phloem underneath.

Since the return of the wolf, the elk have started avoiding certain areas where they were easy prey, allowing the aspen trees a second chance to grow and repopulate. We actually saw some areas of aspen trees that were fenced off, and the area appeared to be a research site to study different dynamics of the aspens. (Unfortunately when we saw it, we were on our way to the doctor’s office because of my back, so we didn’t really stop to get a closer look.)

One of the areas that the elk seemed to avoid was Lamar Valley. We saw hundreds of bison, bears, and pronghorn, but no elk.

The most beautiful place in the park - Lamar Valley. Herds of bison and antelope throughout the valley.
The most beautiful place in the park – Lamar Valley. Herds of bison and antelope throughout the valley.

Other species have also benefited from the return of the wolf, like the grizzly and black bears.  For example, they feed on the left-overs of wolf kills (bears aren’t nearly as fast as wolves, so it is much harder for them to chase down prey), and this has led to an increase in the bear populations as well, after the government trappers attempted to wipe them out too.

"Scar Face" feeding on a wolf kill
“Scar Face” feeding on a wolf kill

Today, the wolf population is still studied by the park service; however due to budget cuts, most (if not all) research is conducted on a voluntary basis.  Because of this, things like helicopters are no longer used to dart the wolves because it’s not in the budget. Instead, the wolves are trapped or netted first. This is increasing the amount of human interaction the wolves have, and making them nervous around people where they once had little fear.  That means that often, when you see a wolf in the park, it will run away instead of letting you marvel in all their splendor.

Ranger Rick performs his wolf surveys voluntarily, because the wolf monitoring program budget has been cut.
Ranger Rick performs his wolf surveys voluntarily, because the wolf monitoring program budget has been cut.

Additionally, maintenance of the radio equipment has declined.

Clear view of his radio collar
Clear view of his radio collar

The silver male wolf that we watched on our last morning in the park had a radio collar, but the battery was dead and it was no longer emitting a signal. Because of this, he could not be identified or tracked, and all the potential data that he was producing were going unrecorded. This means that we don’t know if he is part of a pack or if he is a “lone wolf” (sorry, I had to). We don’t know if he has sired any pups, contributing to the growth of the population. We don’t know where his territory or range are, what his diet is, if he is healthy, or any other multitude of ecological questions, that at least for now, must go unanswered.

This is a wonderful story, but it has only been half written. As the wolf populations continue to rise in Yellowstone and other areas outside of the park, clashes with the human population is inevitable.  The state of Idaho was attempting to start legalizing wolf hunts again, right after they were brought back from the brink of extinction in the United States. Bowing to public pressure, they have decided that they won’t start wolf hunts this year. The wolves are safe. For now.

As a biologist, I believe that we need to learn as much as possible about the wolves in order to save them again. Learning their habits, territories, ranges, diets, and even personalities can teach us so much and help us understand how to prevent human or livestock interactions. Would something as simple as adding guard dogs or guard donkeys/mules (yes, that’s a thing) to the herds be enough to keep wolves away? How many TRUE wolf kills of livestock actually happen per year? What is the economic “loss” caused by wolves?

Personally, I don’t think that the ranchers have a reason to despise the wolves, because the ranchers, like any other business owner, should have insurance.  And insurance pays out for damages/losses, So they don’t have a REAL reason to want the wolves gone.

As Apex Predators, wolves affect everything around them. They are vital for the health of the ecosystems in which they evolved. This means that the other wildlife are healthier as a result. Bigger, stronger, and healthier elk, deer, bison, and antelope survive while the wolves cull the herds of the sick and weak individuals.  Humans need to stop trying to “manage” the wildlife and just leave it be. It will balance out on its own, and be healthier than if we decide which individuals are killed and which populations are “too high”.

If you want to see wildlife with extremely limited human interference, watch this video on the wolves of Chernobyl. I watched this and it made me want to live there. So there is radiation, big deal. I can wear a respirator for the rest of my life if that means I can live in a place that is a wildlife paradise and no humans will bother me.  In the video, they determined that the wolf population is healthy, and no higher or lower than in other wolf habitat areas, meaning they don’t need to be managed – their numbers didn’t “get out of control” without human intervention. They didn’t “eat all of the deer” in the area. The ecosystem is healthy without human interference. Just like it was before we evolved – the world doesn’t need humans to take care of it. The world just needs humans not to destroy it.

Sunset in Lamar Valley
Sunset in Lamar Valley

Yellowstone Part 4 – Saving the Best (and Worst) for Last

Wow, it took a lot longer to get this post pulled together than I thought it would! I finally learned how to put Watermarks on my photos, so I was trying to get that done before I posted these photos.  So, without further ado – here is the final installment of our epic Yellowstone trip! You can catch up and read Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3 here.

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Seeing as how this was a trip to Yellowstone, it was high time we spent some time in the park. By this time we moved to our cabin on the Idaho/Montana border, just outside of the western park entrance. Based on my limited knowledge, the western portion of the park was where you were most likely to see the wolves, so I made sure to book several nights at these cabins to give us a good chance at seeing them. It was also cheaper than staying in the town of West Yellowstone, which is mainly just a tourist attraction since you have to go through the town in order to use the West Entrance. This is also where the Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center is located, and I wanted to be sure to check that out as well.

On our first full day in West Yellowstone, we headed straight to the Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center. It was smaller than I thought it would be, but I still learned A LOT. They had dioramas of different seasons and species, and had a lot of information about why the grizzly and wolf numbers dropped so quickly. (Mainly, the government at the time thought of bears and wolves as pests, and hired government trappers to kill them off. But more on that later). We were able to watch the grizzlies in their enclosure wrestle and play, search for food under rocks, and munch on tasty elk legs! (Road killed animals go to the Center). The wolves that were there are all extremely old, for wolf standards. They all looked like they were about 15 or so years old and were happy to lay in the sun and get tasty free meals that they didn’t have to hunt down on their arthritic legs.

After the center we went next door to an Authentic Mexican Restaurant. I know, I know. Why on Earth would you go get Mexican food in Montana? It was there, I was starving, and I didn’t think about it. Okay?!

Needless to say, it was terrible food. No flavor. I mean really. I couldn’t make food that flavorless on purpose. Live and learn, right? Now I’m passing on my knowledge to you so you have a better meal somewhere else.

After lunch we headed into the park to look for wild wolves! Yay!

One of the best things about Yellowstone is also one of the worst things about Yellowstone: the number of tourists. We were there before the summer crowd, but toward the end of the week more and more people started coming into the park because it was a holiday weekend coming up. So by Wednesday the park was packed! However, like I said, this is also a great thing because when one person sees awesome wildlife, everyone pulls their car over and you are sure to see whatever it is that they are looking at.

We saw a bunch of cars pulled over so of course we pulled over too. We got to see a huge coyote hunting rodents in their tunnels by pouncing on the ground and breaking their tunnels open, much like they do through the snow (see Part 3).

We continued on into the park, headed toward Lamar Valley, where everyone said is where you see the wolves. We stopped at another pull off where we saw a ton of cars and people with spotting scopes, and sure enough, our first sighting of wild wolves! While talking to a gentleman who had a spotting scope the size of our rental car, we were informed that they had killed an elk earlier in the day, and they were still lounging around letting their fat, happy bellies settle. There was a black wolf, and white wolf, and a dark grey wolf. They were really far off so I didn’t get great pictures, but they were wolves!

After the wolves wandered off, we continued up to Lamar Valley. On the way we got to see a black bear or two, but our only focus was wolves. We got to Lamar Valley and it was the most beautiful place I think I have ever seen. It is now on my favorite places list. Mountains, rolling foothills, herds of bison and antelope, grizzlies grazing on grasses and flowers. It was spectacular. We knew we were in the right place because of the number of people pulled over on the roadside with their scopes and cameras ready. Normally you would wonder what they are looking at, but then you notice that everyone is mingling, and simply waiting. They knew something was coming, and I wasn’t going to miss it.

So while we waited with the pros, we got to see some great stuff. Antelope coming close, bison calves running and playing, a grizzly family running away from some mysterious unseen object up on the hill. Then we noticed the Giant Grizzly on the river below us. Now, I’m no good at judging distance, but I would guess she was about 500-600 yards away. She was feeding on a wolf kill from several days before (according to the pros that were waiting for the wolves to show up) and her name is Scar Face. I’m sure for good reason, but she was far enough away that I had to only take their word for it. According to the pros though, Scar Face has been photographed more times than the Kardashians; I’m guessing because she frequents the area that the wolves are often found in, so people do like I did, and take pictures of her while we are waiting for the main attraction 😉

However, while we waited, Hubby noticed that people were leaving. There were still the same number of people there waiting, but the crowd itself had changed; the pros had given up to try a different spot!

I suddenly panicked – What do I do? Do I stay here and hope that they show up? Or do I try my luck somewhere else? And what if I leave and then find out that the wolves showed up right after I left? Luckily Hubby was there to help me decide. Lamar Valley is pretty big after all, so maybe they will be in a different area. We headed back down the road a ways, and when we were sure we were no longer in the valley we turned back around and headed back to a different pull off we saw. I was getting a little discouraged because by hearing all of the stories, wolves would be everywhere! I wanted to get some good pictures of wolves! Not just zoom in on a picture and have to point out “See? That black speck? That’s a wolf!” I had to see them closer!

By this time my back was aching pretty bad, so I wasn’t going to get out of the car unless there was something photo-worthy, so Hubby got out and made friends with some Canadians who are living in an RV and watching the wolves for the summer. (Fun Fact: the wolves of Yellowstone came from Alberta, Canada. It’s funny that the Albertans come all the way down to Wyoming to see the wolves they gave us!) Suddenly, out of nowhere, a black wolf runs by, down on the river about 1,000 yards away. I’m not sure where she came from, but we saw her swim the river and dash up the mountain before she was gone. I got a couple pictures of her, but nothing spectacular since she was running pretty much the whole time.  Apparently she was Number 89, and she is a rogue female that frequents the valley.

We learned a lot about the wolves by talking to all of the “wolf chasers” (or “sighters” I guess would be a better term).  Because the National Park Service is broke (because it’s always the good programs that get their funding cut first) they could no longer afford to tranquilize the wolves from a helicopter. This leads to shotting them with net guns and tranquilizing them once the researchers have gotten up to them, so the wolves have gotten a bit skittish of people. We also learned that the research program is now on a voluntary basis. The rangers that were paid to follow the wolves now must volunteer their time because the park service can’t afford to pay them. Such a sad situation. What is good though, is that there is such thing as “Citizen Science” much like with bird surveys. Enough people are interested in this subject, that they seek out the animals, watch their behavior, and report back to the rangers. Many of the observers know the rangers and vice versa, so the data that are provided are understood to be factual and non-biased (mostly).

After Number 89 ran up the hill, we started heading back, since it was getting late and we had several hours to drive back to our cabin. We stopped again at our first location because I saw something feeding on the same carcass that Scar Face had been eating earlier.

IT WAS A SILVER WOLF.

We stopped the car and I ran up the hill with my camera and tripod (I had the speed clip this time). While we were watching this grey, I decided to get some video of him feeding (unfortunately, WordPress won’t let me upload my awesome video…I’ll have to figure out how to get it onto YouTube or something). In the video you can hear Hubby and I quietly discussing if the wolf was wearing a collar or not, and if Hubby was going to hide behind me so he wouldn’t get eaten. I stopped filming right before the wolf came right passed us so I could get some still shots of him as well. I probably should have just kept filming because the pictures didn’t turn out great (it was getting dark and he was running) but live and learn, right? (that seems to be a theme for today). After the grey ran across the street into on-coming traffic and almost got plowed by a car, he disappeared up the hill and was gone. At his closest, he was probably 20 yards from us.

Ah. Maze. Ing. I was so happy, and he had gotten so close! I was in heaven. But of course you know what that means, right?

I HAD TO SEE THEM AGAIN. This wasn’t nearly enough. Andrew and I were already planning the next day. Get up SUPER early and get to Lamar Valley before sunrise because that is reportedly the best time of day to see the wolves.

Of course then it took us a few hours to get back to our cabins. And it doesn’t get dark until about 9:30…So we didn’t get back to the cabins until midnight. Last thing we needed to do was get up at 3:30 am after going to sleep at midnight, so we decided that the next day we would relax, get up whenever we felt like it, see the rest of the park, and go to bed early that night so we could get up super early the NEXT morning.

So we did the whole “geyser” thing again the next day and relaxed, doing our last bit of souvenir shopping as well. We had dinner at a restaurant/bar in West Yellowstone called The Slippery Otter, and this place was great! The owner was super nice, they had great food, and really good beer. Finally, we had found good food in Montana!

The next morning we got up at 3:30 am and I drove into the park. At about 5 am we were flagged down by a truck coming up the road, telling us to pull over because 4 HUGE BOATS (on trailers, duh) were about to be coming down the road, and they needed as much road space as they could get! Well of course he flagged us down at a terrible spot – not only was there no shoulder to pull onto, but there was actually tons of tree debris on the side of the road from doing road work in the park the day before! HOW MUCH SPACE DID THEY NEED?! I hoped we had scooted over enough; all we could do is wait. And all I could do while I waited was think about how I’m going to miss the wolves because I’m pinned between a boat trailer and the hillside! Finally they drove by without incident and we headed down the road again, but slowly this time. One thing I didn’t count on was the mount of fog that we had to drive through. Cool morning+geothermal activity=lots and lots of scary fog. I love looking at fog; I hate driving in it. I was super nervous that a herd of bison would be in the road in the fog and I was going to miss my opportunity to see the wolves because there was a dead bison on the hood of my car. So I drove carefully and as quickly as I dared. As the sky began to lighten, it was easier to see that we were engulfed in fog, and it was much brighter than I had thought it would be. I was going really to miss the wolves!!!

Finally we made it to Lamar Valley. I was in such a hurry to get to my spot and wait, that when we saw a truck stopped in the road I almost went around him. Then Hubby saw why he was stopped – the same Silver wolf  from before was standing on the hillside!

The next events were a blur – I took tons of photos, and he wandered off into the sage brush. The truck drove away, and we waited to see if he would come back. He did, and he was actually carrying a child’s stuffed animal in his mouth. No, I wasn’t confused and he really had a live dead squirrel in his mouth – it was a toy. You could see the tag on the plush, and the little stubby legs.  We have no idea why, but he was carrying around a toy.  He dropped it after a few minutes of carrying it around, and then he sort of zig-zagged in front of our car  while he tried to decide where to go, until he walked across the road back toward the river where we had first seen him a few nights before.  Then Ranger Rick pulled up. Seriously. That’s his name. He’s a Ranger named Rick. He asked what we were looking at, and when we told him a wolf, he pulled over and got out his radio telemetry equipment – SCIENCE AT WORK! Sort of. Rick couldn’t identify the wolf because the batteries on his collar were apparently dead; but that didn’t matter, because I got some amazing photos of him while he was with us. Suddenly more and more people started showing up, and we met a huge group of wolf chasers. Rick told us that the black female would be coming by soon (her radio collar was working so they knew where she was), so we waited until, far off in the distance, we saw her making her way through the river valley.

By this point my back was killing me. I could no longer appreciate the magnificent scenery I was surrounded by, because I was in blinding pain.  I told Hubby we had to go to the doctor now.  We headed to the northern portion of the park where the doctor’s office was, but they didn’t open until 8:30, so we had to wait. I was about in tears by this point and when they finally opened, I was at my breaking point. Talking to anyone would cause my voice to break, and I finally broke down and cried in front of the nurse while he asked me all the questions that he had to ask, and cried some more while talking to the doctor. He wrote me prescriptions for muscle relaxers and Vicodin and we had to drive up further north to get them filled at the pharmacy. By the time I received my prescriptions and ate some breakfast, I was done. It was probably 10 am on my second to last day of my vacation, and I couldn’t move without being in blinding pain. I was heartbroken that this is how our vacation ended. Hubby had to drive for the next 2 days because my drugs kept me knocked out. But while I was awake I was still in pain.

Our last night was spent in Centennial, Wyoming, through the Snowy Range. The Snowy Range is one of my favorite places in the US, but I slept through it because of my medicine. We got to the hotel and ate dinner in one of the 4 restaurants in town, and then I went to the room to sleep. Hubby, since he was still on vacation, wanted to go check out the town, so he bar-hopped at the 4 bars in town and met wonderful people wherever he went. I was glad he had a good time, because I felt guilty for being the reason we had to cut the trip early.

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Now my back is feeling better, although not 100%, but Hubby and I are already talking about going back to see the wolves again.

Yellowstone Part 2 – Pho Phweakin’ Majephtic

Phteven

Yellowstone was an amazing trip, no doubt. However, when you travel you are always exposed to one thing that is sure to annoy you every time. Tourists.

I know, I know. Technically, you are a tourist too, but if you are anything like me, AND I THINK YOU ARE (gives approving head nod), you are a considerate traveler who wants everyone to be able to appreciate the sights and sounds of nature the way they want, without interruptions.  And unfortunately that’s impossible, because there are some people who don’t have the “considerate of others gene.” And when you are in a place that gets 30,000 visitors annually, many of these people congregate all at once.

Here is one of those times…

…Of course we did the geysers and thermal pools, we saw the frozen Yellowstone Lake, and then putzed around in the Old Faithful area of the park for a little longer to see Old Faithful, the lodge, and the geysers before heading down to Jackson Hole for our first real night of the trip.  While we were walking along the boardwalks of the thermal area we spotted a female grizzly and her young cub! We were so excited to see them. Earlier that morning, Hubby had said if he could see a bear with her cubs, that would make the trip perfect, and sure enough, here she comes wandering out of the woods.  It was amazing! Seeing them wander around, grazing here and there, and just being bears without being harassed was wonderful. They were so majestic! It was almost like I was the only person there. Until I was reminded that I wasn’t.

See, there was some sort of AV club or photography class there as well.  It was a small group of guys who had nice equipment, but acted like they were the most important people there. They would constantly sit down and wait for God-knows-what on the boardwalks and take up the entire thing, forcing people to carefully walk around them, for fear of falling off of the boardwalk and being boiled alive like on the warning posters, telling you to stay on the boardwalk. Seriously. Clearly these guys had already irritated me, right?  So while we were standing their watching this majestic wild animal do her wild animal thing, and she started to wander back into the woods where she came from, it surprised the crap out of me when AV nerd #1, AKA Douchebag McGee, started suddenly yelling for his counterpart, AV nerd #2 (let’s call him Charlie; he didn’t really earn a touching nickname). The conversation went something like this:

D.bag McGee: “Charlie! Charlie!!! She’s moving! There are people on the trail!”

Charlie: (looks up from his camera uncertainly)

D.bag McGee: “Charlie!”

Me: “HEY! WHY ARE YOU YELLING?!”

D.bag: “BECAUSE THERE ARE PEOPLE IN THE FOREST!”

Me: “Do you work here?” (Douchebag had a 2-way radio, so I thought it MIGHT be a possibility).

D.bag: “No, BUT I DON’T WANT TO SEE ANYONE DIE TODAY!”

Me: “There is a ranger RIGHT THERE” (points in the direction of the ranger truck, complete with flashing lights, megaphone, and a barricade to prevent tourists from wandering up to the grizzlies)

D.bag: ignores me and continues to talk loudly to Charlie to see if everyone is safe. States that his reasoning for yelling is he “didn’t want to interrupt radio traffic.”

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The only good thing that came out of this “interaction” is that Hubby and I now have years and years of entertaining each other by randomly screaming “THERE ARE PEOPLE IN THE FOREST! I DON’T WANT TO SEE ANYONE DIE TODAY!!!”

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Here are a few rules to live by when visiting Yellowstone and you see bears:

1. If you aren’t a park ranger, don’t try to do the park ranger’s job. They probably have a better idea of what needs to be done than you do, and more than likely they are already doing that job before you even notice something is happening. They’re good like that.

2. Pay attention to your surroundings. The “people in the forest” were actually walking on a well established ROAD. The road in which Douchebag drove in on, to be exact.

3. Do you not think that peoples’ lives are worth interrupting radio traffic?! If something is TRULY a danger, then yes. Report it. But keep a cool head and try to observe if there is ACTUALLY an emergency before you start freaking out and yelling uncontrollably. And maybe just avoid the freak out all-together if possible. All you do is piss of the Texans next to you. And you do not want a pissed off Texan.

Yellowstone May 2014 576
Pho Phweakin’ Majephtic

Yellowstone Part 1

May is my favorite month. It’s starting to warm up but it’s not too hot, the humidity is usually pretty low, and it’s that wonderful time of year when Hubby and I do our annual week long vacation. For the last few years we have gone to the Florida Keys but this year we wanted to do something different and cheaper. (We are saving up for a big trip in a couple years, so the next couple trips we do will have to be less expensive.) Just like we do every December, we planned and booked our entire trip, this year to Yellowstone National Park. Hubby had never been there before, and I was dying to go back. My family and I went there in 2001, so I wanted to see it again from a Conservationist’s point of view, instead of a teenager point of view.

This time I put all of the photos into a slideshow at the bottom. I thought that might be better than making this post 8 miles long. Enjoy!

The flights were free because of my frequent flyer miles I get from flying for work, and the hotels/cabins we stayed in were cheap because we booked them on Hotels.com, (which is an awesome website, BTW). By the time May came around, all of our lodging, except for one B&B that I didn’t book through Hotels.com, was paid for months ahead of time, so all we had to do was pay for our food and gas on the trip. And of course all of the little cheesy souvenirs that are required.

We flew into Denver and the plan was to drive up to Cody, Wyoming for the first day.  Hubby had booked a cheap rental car through some no-name rental company and when she asked us where we were heading and we said Cody, she said the cars can’t leave the state of Colorado. I’m sorry, what?! How many people do what we were planning on doing? I thought this was a common method of getting to Yellowstone?!

Clearly this woman had had issues like this in the past, because she basically said, “sorry I’m not sorry,” so we went next door to Thrifty to rent from them instead. It was a bit more expensive, but I guess we saved money in the long run since we could actually leave Colorado in this car…

We headed north and started seeing mesas, mountains, and snow. It was a big change from the 85 degrees in Houston. Our first stop was Cheyenne, Wyoming. This is the capital of the state, so we found the beautiful courthouse and then walked around town for a bit. We even found a cool farmers market on the square and I got to play with some puppies that needed homes, that were with Black Dog Animal Rescue. We continued north and stopped at Hell’s Half Acre. This was an interesting place that apparently I used to scatter my toys all over when I was a child. Which is interesting, because until this day I didn’t know it was a real place…hmm… The geology of this area was really cool, but I’m not a geologist so I have no idea what caused it other than erosion.

When we got to Cody, several people suggested we eat dinner at The Silver Dollar Bar. I think there must have been better places to eat, but this place was pretty good – it just wasn’t what we were expecting. I guess since people were suggesting it for dinner I thought it was more of a restaurant/bar. It was really a bar that also served food. It was good food though!

We walked around town a bit and had drinks at The Irma, the historic hotel and restaurant owned by Buffalo Bill Cody. We also had breakfast there the next morning. It was really neat to sit in there and see all of the old 1900s décor. I don’t think they have changed anything in that place since Bill Cody owned it, except they turned the saloon into a restaurant and the famous Cherry Wood bar was now purely decoration and no longer held liquor, glasses, or the shotgun to keep the cowboys from getting rowdy on their trip into “the big city.”

That morning we headed into Yellowstone. We drove through areas that still had so much snow on the mountains, and the areas were so steep, that you weren’t allowed to stop your car for fear of being lost in an avalanche. Scary stuff for Texans! There were also areas where they keep dynamite charges in the mountainsides just in case they need to blow a bunch of snow all the way back to Hell’s Half Acre.

Pretty soon after entering the park we saw our very first Grizzlies! It was impossible to miss them, because there was a line of cars and people with GIANT spotting scopes and cameras pulled over other the side of the road. It was a large male and a smaller female laying down in the shade up on the hill. Apparently before we showed up, the male had been putting the moves on the female, but she was having none of it.  After watching them for a while and talking to the other photographers, we started driving along again, just to see another grizzly up on the same ridge, grazing by himself. It was the start to a very successful wildlife trip!

Of course we did the geysers and thermal pools, we saw the frozen Yellowstone Lake, and then putzed around in the Old Faithful area of the park for a little longer to see Old Faithful, the lodge, and the geysers before heading down to Jackson Hole for our first real night of the trip.  While we were walking along the boardwalks of the thermal area we spotted a female grizzly and her young cub! We were so excited to see them. Earlier that morning, Hubby had said if he could see a bear with her cubs, that would make the trip perfect, and sure enough, here she comes wandering out of the woods.  It was amazing! Seeing them wander around, grazing here and there, and just being bears without being harassed was wonderful. It was almost like I was the only person there.

On our way down we kept our eyes peeled for wildlife along the road and got a chance to see a bull moose standing in the water right by the road, along with the range where the deer and antelope played (along with bison and elk as well). Our first view of the Grand Tetons was not great – they were covered in low-lying clouds and we weren’t even sure what we were looking at. That night we saw the night life of Jackson Hole and I made my first-ever attempt at astrophotography. I tried it right outside of our cabin and it went so well that we drove down the road a couple miles and found a pull-over to try it again in an area without light pollution. It was fantastic! I definitely found a new hobby! The only bad part is that it makes for some late nights, and our cabin had a window that wasn’t covered so it got bright QUICK. There wasn’t much in the way of sleeping in on this trip.

We spent the next day checking out Jackson Hole which is an awesome little tourist town. Everyone is so nice, and there are sculptures everywhere! We went into the most amazing store too – It was a fossil shop and to get your attention there was a huge Triceratops skull for sale in the window. The sign said “Yes, I’m real! $450,000.00” Holy craps! But it was SO COOL! The shop also contained things like a woolly rhino skull, cave bear skulls, fossilized sting rays, and of course, trilobites! All of these items were real, so of course out of my price range. I would have killed for a cave bear skull though…

The shop also had reproduction items that were still pretty pricy, like this guy! (this is actually a picture of the REAL crab, taken at the Houston Museum of Natural Science, but the fossil shop had a reproduction of this).

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After checking out the town, we headed into Grand Tetons National Park, just north of Jackson Hole.

I think this is actually a good stopping point for the first part of our trip. We were really busy, and I want you to be able to appreciate the adventures without getting bogged down in the literature!

Enjoy the pictures in the slideshow!

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Planes, Trains, and Automobiles

The Steve Martin/John Candy movie always seemed a little depressing to me. One guy keeps getting screwed over and the other guy doesn’t see anything wrong with that.  Well, today that movie seems to have come to fruition, and I’m Steve Martin.

planes_trains_and_automobiles1

It all started with Expedia.com.  I was trying to book a flight to Timmins, Ontario for work and the only way to save the budget for the project was to book through Expedia.  I was on a personal trip and attempting to book the flight from a hotel room. I was getting so frustrated because every time I selected a flight, I would go through all the hoops of selecting my flight, my seat, and everything else when I would get the next screen that would say this flight is no longer available.”

This should have been taken as a sign (Sign #1). Maybe I should have just put off the trip a little later and book it through a real airline instead of the discount site. But no. I was able to book a flight, a hotel, and a rental car, and it ONLY took 1 hour. When it should have taken 20 minutes.

I was continually getting emails from Expedia about booking my trip to Timmins. It was a little confusing because THEY of ALL PEOPLE should be well aware that I already booked my flight to Timmins, right? (Sign #2).

Yesterday I got the email to check in for my flight within 24 hours of my trip. I tried to do that and it kept saying that it couldn’t do that. Call customer service. When I tried to call customer service, this was the recording. “Thank you for calling United Airlines. We are currently experiencing a large volume of calls. All of our representatives are currently helping other customers. If it is not an emergency, try again later.” Well it wasn’t an emergency, so I wasn’t too worried about it. (Sign #3).

Then this morning I headed to the airport in Houston and tried to check in for my flight. No dice. Every time I slide my card into the card reader, it said there was no itinerary that matched my name. (Sign #4). Probably why the website wouldn’t let me check in online either. The lady behind the counter, who looked like a 4-foot tall, black, female version of Dr. Frank-N-Furter from Rocky Horror Picture Show, was not remotely helpful or in a hurry.

Seriously.
Seriously.

However, it seemed that everyone was having issues with the kiosks, so I wasn’t so worried about it (take it back to Sign #3). I was finally given one boarding pass, from Houston to Boston, and Ms. Dr. Frank-N-Furter told me these exact words, “This is your boarding pass for Boston. When you get to your gate in Boston, ask for your other boarding passes. This will get you to Boston, but your bag will go on to Timmins.”

Awesome. One less thing to worry about. So I had enough time to get through security and even grab a breakfast sandwich before I walked right onto my plane for Boston. Easy right? Of course I still had two more flights to catch…

I landed in Boston and it turned out I had to go through security again. I thought that was weird, but the only flying I usually do is domestic and small airports, so having to go from Terminal E to Terminal B, it makes sense that I would need to go through security again. No big deal. The airport was pretty awful, but I also blame this on Expedia. See, since I couldn’t check in online, I had no idea what terminal I needed at which airport. I had the flight numbers and the flight times, but that was pretty much it. I had to ask around for where I could find Air Canada, and the guy told me to go to Terminal B. Follow the signs to C Terminal, go across the street, and you’re there. Across the street? How big is this airport? So I followed the signs, found the C Terminal, and was stuck. It took me a while before I could find Terminal B, and it really was across the street. Then I had to go to the ticket counter to get my boarding passes. Not the gate like Dr. Frank-N-Furter said (because I had to go through security again) but at the ticket counter. I got my tickets and was on my way. Then the Boston TSA guy said this.

“You’re going the wrong way!”

planes_trains_automobiles

All I could think about was Planes, Trains, and Automobiles (Sign #4 again). I knew people were just saying that because it is December and I’m from Texas, and going to Canada in December is probably suicide, so I didn’t think anything of it.

The flight from Boston to Toronto wasn’t bad, even though this was my “window seat” on the plane.

My "window seat"
My “window seat”

Toronto is actually a much bigger city than I thought it was. I would love to actually spend some time there.

Toronto as far as the eye can see
Toronto as far as the eye can see

When I got off the plane in Toronto everything in the airport was very well marked and stress-free. Where it wasn’t well-marked, they had employees yelling directions of where we needed to go. Flawless. I went through Customs and security again before I got to my Terminal for my final flight of the day.

Last flight of the day
Last flight of the day

This was a tiny little Turbo Prop that we had to walk out onto the runway to board. In the snow. Granted there wasn’t much snow, but it was still about 25 degrees F outside. The plane wasn’t full, so even though it was the smallest plane of the day, I had the most room.

The plane was making me a little nervous though. There was this ear-piercing whine for most of the flight. I’m not sure if it was the particular altitude we were at, or if it was when they turned the heat on in the plane, or what, but I really thought my eardrums were going to start bleeding if it didn’t stop. Of course, as soon as I thought I couldn’t take it anymore, the shrieking stopped, and I was able to read in peace. Then when we started to descend it started again. I would have preferred a crying baby. At least you know why that sound is being made and you aren’t afraid that it’s a breach in the bulkhead.

When I landed in Timmins I went to the rental car counter to get the keys for my rental car while I waited for my luggage. Apparently they were expecting me to pick up my car at 10 am. When I was in the air between Houston and Boston.

Since I hadn’t shown up, they gave away my car. And didn’t have any other cars either. Not exactly sure how you can overbook rental cars, but the girl behind the counter said that they were still expecting two more drivers, and they had no more cars to rent out?! Anyway, I blame Expedia for this too.  I booked my rental car through Expedia, and USUALLY when you book a car through the airline, it automatically sets the time you will get there for when your flight lands. But for some reason Expedia decided that I would be able to pick up the keys on my way to Boston first, so they set up the rental agreement to start at 10 am. True, it was my responsibility to double-check the rental time, but remember how I said it took 1 hour to book flights and a car? I didn’t remember what time my flight was supposed to get in. I was just glad I remembered what DATE I was flying in.

Rental car girl set me up for a rental car for the morning, and I finished waiting for my luggage. I’m still waiting for my luggage. Because Dr. Frank-N-Furter doesn’t know how her job works. My bag is still in Toronto. Apparently I was supposed to get it off the conveyor belt in Toronto and go through customs with it, and then re-check the bag. NOT WHAT I WAS TOLD IN HOUSTON. (Sign #12).

So I called a cab from the airport and waited. And waited.

People came and left in taxis. Mine never came.

I called again, and the guy on the phone said that there had been an accident and he was trying to re-route a taxi to me.

I waited some more. Finally I gave up and called a different cab company. A lady who had just walked in asked if I was waiting for a cab, and when I said yes, she said, “well, there is one down there upside down in a ditch. I bet that one was yours.”

The other cab company showed up within a few minutes, and it turned out that the upside down cab was in fact the one that was supposed to be picking me up. Apparently, my driver, Dan, told me, that that guy is a horrible driver and I should be glad I wasn’t in the car with him. He is actually banned from driving with the company that did pick me up. Wow. (Sign #20).

Dan was really nice. Everyone is Canada is really nice. That’s the only saving grace for this trip so far. He told me of a place where I can see Polar Bears while I’m here. I liked Dan.

Dan only takes cash. The first cab company advertised that they took Visa and Master Card, which was why I called them in the first place. I had enough cash for Dan luckily. He took my American money. Phew.

I got to my hotel and they had my reservation. You know why? Because I booked THIS through Hotels.com. I love Hotels.com. Anyway…

I told the lady at the front desk that I’m expecting a bag, so if they could call me when it comes in, that would be great. Even if it comes in at midnight. I just want my bag.

I went to my room and saw a restaurant in the hotel with a couple people sitting at the bar. I was starving. All I had eaten all day was a breakfast sandwich and three bags of airline pretzels. I went to my room, checked to make sure the wifi was working (because I didn’t think about international charges on my phone, so I’m not sure what to do about that), and I told Hubby that I was safe and sound via Facebook messenger.

I went to the restaurant and asked if I could still order dinner. She said all she had were what basically breaks down to as TV dinners. For $7. I don’t care. I’m starving and I don’t have a car to go anywhere else.

I got her to heat up a shepherd’s pie, and while I was waiting I had a wonderful Canadian lager. I sat and talked with a guy named John for a while, and like all Canadians, he was very nice. I finished my beverage and asked how much I owe. She said $12.50. I said do you take Visa?

No, cash only.

FACEPALM.

A restaurant in a hotel that doesn’t take cards when the hotel does? I tried to use the ATM and it wouldn’t read my card.

John paid for my dinner and I ate in my room.

$7 dinner
$7 dinner

To be fair, I usually travel with cash. But my reasoning behind it was, I RARELY use it, especially when I am on company trips, and I wasn’t about to spend money switching to Canadian currency when I was just going to be here for a couple days. Everyone takes cards these days, anyway, right? Lesson learned.

I lost track of how many signs there were that this little Texas girl was going the wrong way. That something just doesn’t want me to be in Canada. But maybe it was just a bad day.

But tomorrow is another day.

Tomorrow there might be Polar Bears.

polar bear

My Amazing Time in Grad School-Thesis

Seeing as how adventure is in my blood, and “Wild” is my middle name, it only seems fitting that my graduate degree in Biology consisted of a thesis in which I got to follow and document the behavior of the largest carnivore I could find: The American Black bear.

Ok, ok so they aren’t TECHNICALLY carnivores. They are true omnivores, eating whatever they can find, BUT they are in Order Carnivora, so people think they are scary. Which they are. Kinda.

Anyway, this is how it all got started:

I heard about a month-long class I could take over the summer, in which you go to San Jose, Costa Rica and study monkeys. (Seriously, this is how it started). The course was called Primate Behavior and Conservation, and it was through DANTA. My parents didn’t really want me going down there by myself, but ones to NEVER restrict my adventures and education, my dad decided to go with me.  We would site-see for a few days, then I would meet up with the course people, and he would fly back home.  This will all be in a separate post later, because it was definitely an adventure. Unfortunately all but about 7 of my pictures got corrupted, so I don’t have anything to show you really. Sorry.

Anyway, with this class we learned a bunch of stuff, which I then brought back with me to the desert of West Texas, where I was going to school. A few days after I got back, I was taking another course for my degree called Desert Zoology. It was the best class I have ever taken. Basically, it was a hiking-until-the-prof-sees-something-worth-talking-about class, so we hiked and camped for a month. HOW GREAT IS THAT?! When we went to Big Bend National Park we saw a female bear in an oak tree with 4 cubs. Seriously, they were just hanging out in a tree above the trail.

The family that started it all

I told my prof and my BF (now Hubby) that I didn’t want to leave-I could seriously watch them all day long. My prof said, “that’s your thesis project.” See, I had been trying to come up with project ideas, and things kept falling flat, but this was the sudden epiphany I needed. My next thoughts to my BF were scrambled thoughts of working at a zoo somewhere, observing the feeding behaviors of Polar bears in captivity, Polar bears in the wild, wild lion behavior in Africa…I went on and on floating on a cloud of excitement about my future in Conservation. I was stoked.

Basically, I was going to be observing the bears for typical behaviors, which I categorized and provided detailed descriptions of.  Next I actually got to go to the park and find the bears. This sounds a lot harder than it sounds a lot easier than was just as difficult as it sounds.

But on my first day, first thing in the morning, Hubby was making breakfast and I was getting ready to hike, when he popped his head into the tent and said, “There’s a bear!”

I HAD NO IDEA WHAT TO DO.

I had planned all this out to the letter, but when it came time to it, I was hoping I was doing it right. Then I thought, well, it’s my research, so damnit, I am doing it RIGHT!

The next few months, I saw a lot of black figures through the trees like this:

Sow with two cubs

 Summer wasn’t so great. I didn’t see them much, but no one else did either. My personal theory was they went down to Mexico to cool off with a couple Coronas. Prove me wrong.

But I did get a lot of people asking what I was doing, and asking me if I was scared. Not once was I scared of the bears. I actually always felt safe with them. I mean, don’t get my wrong-I’m not going to be turning into Grizzly Man or anything, but the Black bears are used to human activity in the park, they are not aggressive, and I kept my distance. Even when I was heading back up the trail to camp one evening, after I had stayed on the trail a bit too long and it was getting dark. A large bear came up and met me on the trail. She (I’m assuming) stared right at me, then kept walking. It was A.MAZ.ING.

There was one time, when hiking high in the mountains with my BF that a bear got mad at us.  We didn’t even see him, because he was up the hill above us, and sleeping under a tree.  We would have walked right past him, but he sat up to look at us as we were walking, and caught our attention.

He did not like us watching him.

Black bears do a lot of huffing and puffing to try to scare people away but of course, I wasn’t going anywhere. We backed off a bit to give him his space, but it wasn’t good enough. He was still shaking branches and puffing at us, so we backed off some more. By this time, we were thinking, ‘ok, we need to go forward to get off the mountain. He does not want us to go forward. S!$t.’ He moved off a bit, to the other side of the small hill, so we thought he had gotten sick of us and left.  We grabbed our stuff that we had carefully put down while observing the bear, and speed-walked past where he had been. I looked back and he was standing there, (much closer to the trail than he had been), and we just kept going. That is why I said bears are scary. Kinda.

This little guy was my favorite through the whole study:

Yearling male

I saw him in the morning and watching him until the heat of the day when he wandered off. I came back in the afternoon and before I got to him I heard screaming and rocks further down the trail. A couple came back up the trail and this was the conversation:

Stupid people: “I wouldn’t go down there if I were you. There is a bear cub, but we didn’t see the Momma.”

Me, the amazing researcher:”I’m pretty sure I know who you are talking about, and he’s not with Mom anymore. He’s on his own.”

Stupid people: “Oh…can we follow you?”

After which they proceeded to ruin the video I was taking of him, by asking questions while I was filming. Thanks guys. I’m sure Discovery Channel has the same problems.

I also loved this guy:

JEFE-THE BIGGEST BLACK BEAR I HAVE EVER SEEN

I call him Jefe.  I know you can’t tell it in the picture, but this guy was HUGE. And he was hilarious. For all you non-behavioral studies types, I will explain something to you.  In the wild, animals usually survive on a feast-or-famine diet.  They attempt to spend as little energy as possible while obtaining their food, because they will need the fat they put on for when times are tough. (You know, the thing most Americans never have to worry about, and wonder why they can’t lose weight-your body “thinks” it should keep all that weight on, just in case).

Anyway, so by spending as little energy as possible, this HUGE bear was laying down under an oak tree, consuming every acorn he could reach.  Then he got up, turned around, layed back down, and continued to graze on the plethora of acorns. (Yes, I would say he had a plethora). I couldn’t believe how lazy he was! But I guess you don’t get that big by wasting time and energy.

The best part was, this whole time, I was standing on the other side of the tree, about 30 or so feet away. He knew I was there, but he didn’t really care. The area he was laying in was right next to the hiking trail, so when a couple came around the corner back up the trail, he freaked out from the sudden noise (Now do you see why I’m not scared of Black bears?) and ran away down the creek (the hikers almost ran too). Then all of a sudden, he stopped, sat down for a few seconds (pictured) and then slowly got up and walked away in the direction he had been about to run.

So, my observation was Jefe got a freakin’ head rush from standing up too quick! Seriously.

I saw some great things while doing this research, and I got to learn a lot:

I learned I don’t really like camping by myself, because it gets boring and creepy at night.

I learned that bears are actually pretty easy to predict.

and I learned that when you are on high-alert for Mountain lions, deer will scare the crap out of you every time.

The Chisos Mountains – My weekend home during the research project